Re-uniting our divided states

Op-ed: We will not succeed as a union by groveling in the low recesses of our fears and prejudices.

It seems evident that the vast majority of Americans are disenchanted, and rightfully so, with the two major political parties. The Republicans used their most recent period of control of the White House and Congress to turn a $154 billion budget surplus into a $464 billion deficit, engage us in perpetual war at the behest of the neocons, and preside over the largest economic collapse since the great depression. Since then, they have used control of Congress to play the role of obstructionist. For their part, the Democrats, in a brief period of control, gave us something less than half-a-loaf of health care reform, and, in general, while ever expressing compassion for the less well-off, they have failed to significantly move the needle in the fight against poverty, failing educational systems, and an urban gangster culture of drugs and violence. Both parties have pretty much failed to meaningfully address jobs that are lost, not only to the global economy, but to technological advancements that call for a retrained workforce. There is much talk but little action concerning a tax system in which corporations and billionaires pay virtually nothing. Pressing problems, from a crumbling infrastructure, to the ticking bomb of entitlements, to the epidemic of narcotic addiction, go seemingly unaddressed.

This all suggests that we should be unified in our call for action. Instead, however, as the election results demonstrate, we are sorely divided. Some of that division arises from different philosophies of what government should do and how it should do it, and that is the fair debate we should be having. But too much of our divide is personal. Rejection of the political establishment should not include a willingness to vilify those with whom we disagree, or to embrace or excuse rhetoric and actions designed to diminish, demean and discriminate against others based on race, religion, gender, nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability. That is not the process of a political discussion. It is the promotion of that which divides us for the purpose of political gain.

In light of this, I think that a day trip is in order. Sharpsburg in Washington County is a short drive from here, and an entirely lovely one, even while the fall foliage offers only the closing act of its spectacular annual show. When you reach the area of Antietam Creek, you will be at the site of the National Battlefield that commemorates the day-long confrontation that played out there on Sept. 17, 1862. The peacefulness and natural beauty of the gently rolling Western Maryland hills make it difficult to contemplate the horror that occurred at this place while the nation was in the throes of seemingly irreconcilable division.

When the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia met that day near the gently flowing creek that lent its name to the battle, an early morning fog drifted over the last moments of peace, as the air was soon shattered by the deadliest of engagements. By the end, the bloodiest day in our history had left the dead and the dying spread everywhere across a hideous landscape.

That Americans were at one time killing each other at such an appalling rate should prompt us to be mindful the fragility of a nation's bonds, and to consider how a divided nation was able to come together. The significance of Antietam is much more than the enormous number of casualties. While the awful battle had, essentially, ended in a draw, it did compel the Confederates to fall back into Virginia. The repulsion of the invasion was victory enough for President Lincoln to seize the opportunity to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. That act reinvented the Federal cause and instilled it with a moral rectitude that would preclude the European powers from recognizing the Confederacy, carry the union to ultimate victory, and eradicate slavery in America forever.

At this time of division, a walk along the sacred ground at Antietam to contemplate what happened there might compel us to examine what is in our hearts and help us to find our moral center as a people. Such self-examination may allow us to turn away from the heat of battle in a war against each other, and permit us to find a common purpose. The formation of a more perfect union is an endless job, and we have much work to do. But we will not succeed by groveling in the low recesses of our fears and prejudices. As is demonstrated by the preservation of our union after four years of a terrible civil war, victory can only be achieved by reaching for a higher ground.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is

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